Guest article by Rachel Havekost.
Communication is hard. Let’s be real. It seems so simple in our heads, yet when we try and put our thoughts and feelings into words it seems to get tangled up and misconstrued by the recipient. That’s why it’s so important we establish better communication skills.
I’m a trained mental health therapist and I’ve been in a client therapy for over a decade, I still struggle to communicate. I’m not just talking about communication with my partner either—I’m talking about communication with friends, coworkers, and family members (if you don’t have problems communicating with your parents, I envy you.)
Why is communication such a mystery to so many? Why are even the “most skilled” of us still somehow fumbling over the basic human need to connect?
3 Main Reasons Miscommunication Happens
Okay, before we dive into my tips, let’s first understand why our communication can feel so shitty at times.
Lack of Self-Awareness
Self-awareness. Such a buzzword.
The ever-elusive “how well do you know yourself” term that we all boast and hope to exude, yet realistically lack in entirety. To some degree, we are all self-aware. After all, we are conscious beings that we know we exist: consciousness is essentially the most basic level of self-awareness.
That being said, humans are capable of diving so much deeper into self-awareness through a multitude of self-discovery processes. Part of this is understanding our mental stories, why we react to things the way we do, how we’re affected by our past, etc.
Whoof. Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? This is one of the major reasons self-awareness is a never-ending process, and one that we don’t ever “arrive” at. It’s a constant evolution, because we are always evolving.
I am not the same person I was yesterday, and I won’t be the same tomorrow.
No matter how much self-work I’ve done, no matter how many interpersonal effectiveness worksheets and communication workshops I’ve completed (and oh—it’s an annoying amount), my values, needs, and sense of self is in constant flux. Yes—many of my most basic needs, values, and core self will remain steady, but I will still change, and so will you.
So why does this impact communication?
Because if I don’t know myself well, I won’t be aware of what triggers me in an interaction. I won’t be able to express why something my partner does is bothering me.
I also won’t be able to see how something from my past has led me to see an experience differently than a friend or coworker, and instead, I might fixate on how my way of seeing the situation is the only way.
For more on self awareness, check out Taryn’s free training here.
Lack of Skill
Plain and simple, one of the biggest problems in communication is lack of skill.
I’m a firm believer that the school system screwed me (and all my kickball friends) by not teaching communication skills in school.
I am always talking (yes, sometimes to myself, but self-talk is for another blog post), but rarely practicing quantum physics or using my acute knowledge of the Cold War.
Please send help.
Since no one taught me these skills growing up (including my parents, who don’t get me wrong, I love), I had to learn them in therapy and through lots—and I mean lots—of practice.
Like most people in my life, I had no idea that there were actual tools for successful communication. For example, we don’t just need to focus on how well we speak, but also how well we can listen.
Other things to consider? Body language, tone of voice, word choice, just to name a few.
Difference of Values (and lack of respect around those differences)
Remember when we talked about self-awareness? Me too. It was fun.
One of the major tools people learn during their discovery of self are values.
But Rachel, what are Values?
Core values revolve around the what each person finds to be most important in their life. These can relate to our favored experiences, the people we surround ourselves with, and what lights us up the most.
Your core values give your life meaning and without them, you can feel empty or disconnected from who you are.
Where problems arise is when couples, friends, coworkers, or family members have different values and don’t respect one another’s differences. If I value openness, but my parents value privacy, you can imagine we’d have a lot of conflict around sharing feelings, posting on social media, or talking politics at the dinner table.
If we have the added strain of judging one another’s values, we are really going to struggle to communicate.
3 Easy Tips for Better Communication
Before getting to the big stuff, check if you’re practicing these simple tips first:
1. If humanly possible, speak in person.
So much gets misconstrued via text, e-mail, and DM. We lose body language, tone of voice, and don’t get to see how our words impact the other person.
If you’re in a long-distance relationship, try to save important conversations for video chats.
2. Use “I” statements.
In western culture we’ve adopted the nasty habit of using the “universal you” when talking about our own experiences.
Saying, “you know how you just feel so sad when you see a puppy cry?” is not the same as “I get really sad when I see a puppy cry.” The first statement projects my feelings onto the person I’m speaking to and protects me from owning up to my own feelings.
“I” statements are more vulnerable and invite the speaker to more accurately express their own experience.
3. Don’t interrupt.
Let whoever you are communicating with finish their thought, even if you think you know what they’re going to say. When you think they’ve finished, ask if it’s ok for you to respond.
You have no idea how far this goes!
Can you guys tell how much I love communication?
3 Deeper Tips for Better Communication
Okay, I know you’re officially ready to explore these deeper tips with me.
In order to effectively communicate, we have to know ourselves and understand why we are feeling the way we are. It’s also important that we share these parts of ourselves with partners and loved ones, because it helps them to understand us too.
A great place to start is evaluating your values. You can use a simple list of values and start by circling words that resonate with you. If you can, start to narrow that list down to 4-6 core values.
Building an understanding around what matters to you, and how that can (and will) be different than the values of your loved ones can be eye-opening in terms of beginning to understand your loved ones more (and in return be more understood).
If partner-communication is your biggest struggle, try taking the Love Languages quiz to see what your love language is.
This is another eye-opener in terms of seeing how differently the two of you (or three, or four—I don’t judge) both give and receive love.
Understanding is the first step in releasing judgment, respecting differences, and ultimately the path to better communication.
If you struggle with self-awareness and self-discovery, Taryn walks you through all these practices and more it the Self Discovery Toolkit.
Try DBT Skills
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) has a buttload of interpersonal effectiveness skills that are crazy amazing for all types of communication snuffs in all types of relationships. These skills allow you to break down what’s in your head so that you can communicate simply and effectively.
These are the basic skills I dream of one day seeing in an elementary school curriculum.
We have three options when choosing how to use Interpersonal Effectiveness in everyday life: Objective, Relationship, and Self-Respect.
The idea is to select one of these skillsets when you’re in a communication pickle. Pick the one that feels MOST important to you at the present moment.
For example, if I am trying to communicate something challenging to my husband, I might pick the “Relationship” as a guide for how to communicate.
If I’m more interested in sticking to my guns, I might choose “Self-Respect.”
Each skill set is broken down into acronyms, which is helpful since typically in communication fumbles we don’t have time to say, “excuse me, I know we are arguing right now, but do you mind if I just Google my DBT Interpersonal Effectiveness skill sheet for a moment? Thanks.”
Here is a BASIC breakdown of each of the three skill sets:
When the goal is to be purely objective, and emotional stakes are low.
I’ve included examples for this one to give you an idea of how to use the prompts:
- DESCRIBE: be descriptive about the situation: “Earlier today, you didn’t say good morning to me.”
- EXPRESS: express how you are feeling in this moment: “I’m feeling scared and worried, like you might be mad at me.”
- ASSERT: be clear and assertive with what you are asking for: “It would mean a lot to me if you told me how you’re feeling about me.”
- REINFORCE: reinforce why this is important to you: “It’s important to me because I get insecure, and even though logically I know you love me, when you don’t say good morning it triggers feelings of being unloved.”
When the goal is to maintain a relationship.
- GENTLE: be gentle, kind, and sensitive with your language.
- INTERESTED: be interested in the other person’s needs, feelings, or experience.
- VALIDATE: validate the other person’s needs, feelings, or experience.
- EASY MANNER: speak in a calm and kind tone.
When the goal is to stay true to yourself and put what’s best for you first, regardless of the relationship.
- FAIR: be fair to yourself AND the other person.
- (no) APOLOGIES: do not apologize for your feelings, opinions, experience, or existence.*
- STICK to your VALUES: don’t sell out your values or integrity.**
- TRUTHFUL: tell the truth, try not to exaggerate or underplay what you are saying.
*Don’t confuse this with letting go of the skill to apologize when you have in fact done something to hurt another person, which is an effective skill for maintaining relationships.
**It may be worth evaluating what your values are in order to be effective here.
The Story I’m Telling Myself
In her TedX talk, the ever-brilliant Brené Brown tells a story that led to her discovery of the statement, “The story I’m telling myself is…”
This is an effective tool to explain your frame of mind in a conversation.
It allows you to not only present your frame of mind to your partner in a non-threatening way, but also explore and share the stories you are probably always telling yourself that have led you to feel this way.
A great example of this would be a former partner didn’t come home one night and I found out the next day he had been with another woman. Down the road, if I don’t hear from my current partner in the evening, this past experience might get triggered and lead me to believe (whether it’s true or not), that my partner is going to cheat on me.
When he does come home, I might be spiraling out and very upset. By saying, “the story I’m telling myself is that you weren’t responding to my texts because you’re going to cheat on me,”
I’m communicating an honest, non-threatening, and clear way of communicating why I might be freaking the F out.
This is such a powerful tool in bringing to light past experiences that have created narratives for you, and for sharing what might feel like a neurotic response to your partner in a non-threatening and understandable way. For more on this, check out Brené Brown’s TedX talk on Netflix.
Phew, we made it guys! So many goodies for communication, I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions about communication, don’t hesitate to comment below!
A friendly reminder: If these tools don’t work, chances are the person you’re speaking to doesn’t respect you, has very little self-awareness, or may be a toxic person in your life.
Ask yourself, “If I have done everything I can to be gentle, ask for my needs, and respect their values, and none of that is being reciprocated, what value does this relationship have in my life?”
Guest Blogger: Rachel A Havekost
Rachel is a writer, ex-therapist and motorcycle traveler, who is obsessed with the intricacies of relationships and everything in between.
Learn more at www.rachelhavekost.com.